Greeks have been coming to the United States since colonial times – as sailors, explorers, cotton merchants, students – but did not arrive in numbers sufficient to establish permanent communities until the 1890s.
The first Greek known to set foot on U.S. soil was Don Teodoro or Theodoros, a sailor and ship caulker serving aboard the expedition of the Spanish explorer, Panfilio de Narváez, who anchored off what is now Pensacola, Florida, in 1528. Offering himself as a hostage in order to procure fresh water, Don Theodoro never returned to the ship and was presumably killed by the Indians on the land.
In 1763, as Florida passed from Spanish to British hands, 1,403 people from the Mediterranean, 500 of them Greeks mostly from Mani, were recruited to establish plantations near present-day New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Andrew Turnbull, a Scott, married to Maria Gracia Rubini, the daughter of a Greek merchant in London, born in Smyrna, Asia Minor, secured land about 75 miles south of St. Augustine, Florida, which he named New Smyrna in honor of his wife’s birthplace.
As the colony was unsuccessful, the Greek remnant of New Smyrna, no more than 100 people, found a new life in St. Augustine, Florida in 1776. A census in 1783 reports that most of the Greeks in St. Augustine were prospering and some had established themselves as merchants, but eventually became assimilated with the local Spanish population.
The first significant Greek community to develop was in New Orleans during the 1850s. By 1866, the community was numerous and prosperous enough to have a Greek consulate and the first Greek Orthodox church in the United States.
Immigration picked up in the 1890s, and 450,000 Greeks arrived to the States between 1890 and 1917, many as hired labor for the railroads and mines of the American West; another 70,000 arrived between 1918 and 1924. Less than 30,000 arrived between 1925 and 1945, many of whom were “picture brides” for single Greek men.
Greeks again began to arrive in large numbers after 1945, fleeing the economic devastation caused by World War II and the Greek Civil War.
After the 1981 admission of Greece to the European Union, numbers fell to an average of less than 2,000 annually. In recent years, Greek immigration to the United States has been minimal; in fact, net migration has been towards Greece. Over 72,000 U.S. citizens currently live in Greece (1999); most of them are Greek Americans.
Today, Greek Americans can be found in every state of the Union, with a heavy concentration in New York City and Chicago, with smaller communities in the greater Detroit, Cleveland, Boston and Baltimore areas. North & South Carolina, as well as Tarpon Springs, Florida are also home to a large Greek-American community.
The flood of Greek immigrants who arrived in America before 1920 can be traced along three major routes:
1. Greeks going to Western states to work on railroad gangs and in mines. As early as 1907, it was estimated by the Greek Consul General in New York that there were between 30,000 and 40,000 Greek laborers in the American West. They found work in the mines and smelters of the Rocky Mountain region, especially Colorado (see “Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre” by Zeese Papanikolas) and Utah, and on the railroad throughout the west. Greek railroad laborers were especially concentrated in California, where in 1910, there were more Greeks proportionate to the total state population than anywhere else in the U.S.
Though Greeks came to the West as manual laborers, many began to move into the middle class early on. Even before World War I, but especially in the ‘20s, many Greeks began to leave the mines and railroads to become storeowners, establishing restaurants, bars, candy stores, or confectioneries, hotels and other businesses at a rapid rate. Though many remained blue-collar workers, the main development was toward the emergence of a Greek American bourgeoisie. Eventually, women arrived from the old country and a normal life was made possible, which further attenuated middle class aspirations
2. Greeks going to New England mill towns to work in the textile and shoe factories. New England was a second major destination of Greek immigrants, where they worked in textile and shoe factories. Although they settled in many towns in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts, the foremost mill town was Lowell, Massachusetts, a community that has a special significance in the history of Greek Americans. In 1906, Holy Trinity, the first Byzantine style Greek Orthodox Church in America, was erected in Lowell. By 1910, Lowell, with a total population of 100,000, had 20,000 Greeks. By as late as 1920s, Lowell had the third largest Greek population in America, trailing only New York and Chicago.
“Greek towns” appeared in all parts of the U.S. wherever a sufficient number of Greek immigrants were located. Lowell, Massachusetts, had one of the first and most extensive Greek towns.
3. Greeks who went to the large Northern cities, principally New York and Chicago and worked in factories, or as busboys, dishwashers, bootblacks and peddlers, mostly in the big cities of the Middle Atlantic and Great Lakes states. By the eve of World War I, there were at least several thousand Greeks in large cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Gary, Indiana, and Milwaukee, with Chicago and New York the preeminent Greek American cities.
Many Greeks in Chicago worked in meatpacking plants, steel mills and factories. But many others took the entrepreneurial route. It was in this capacity that the Greek immigrant was to make his most distinguishing mark on American society. Newly arrived and often still boys, Greek immigrants, who started out as bootblacks, busboys or peddlers of fruit, candy and flowers, somehow managed to set aside a portion of their meager profits, their mercantile future almost predestined.
Once they settled in, the immigrants began developing a social life initially based around Greek coffee shops. Soon schools and churches were set up followed by the first Greek newspapers.
4. Tarpon Springs, Florida
The first Greek immigrants arrived to this city during the 1880s, to work as divers in the sponge harvesting industry. In 1905, John Cocoris introduced a new technique of sponge diving to Tarpon Springs and recruited Greek divers from the Dodecanese Islands and Halki in particular. By the 1930s, there was a very productive sponge industry in Tarpon Springs, generating millions of dollars a year.
After a red tide algae bloom in 1947 that wiped out the sponge fields, most of the sponge boats and divers switched to fishing and shrimping. Today, the town is mostly shops, restaurants, and museums dedicated to the memory of Tarpon Springs’ earlier industry.
Becoming Americans 1920–1960
The 1920s marked the start of a new age for Hellenism in America. The American government curtailed immigration policy and quotas, commencing an extensive campaign to ‘Americanize’ the immigrants and assimilate the millions of immigrants who had arrived in the previous two decades, particularly those from Eastern and Southeastern Europe.
In general terms, the Greeks reacted positively to assimilation. For example, the primary objective of the AHEPA organization was to assist Greeks integrate better into American society. There were other similar organizations that worked to achieve a balance between Americanization and preserving Greek identity such as GAPA and the Archdiocese, which acquired considerable prestige from the 1930s onwards following the enthronement of Archbishop Athinagoras. Around the same time various other organizations also helped Greek overcome the financial crisis of 1929.
When the Greek-Italian War started in 1940, Greek-Americans mobilized in support of Greece, and Greeks were viewed in a particularly positive light by American popular opinion.
The 1950s saw the coming of age of the second generation of Greek-Americans, and with it social improvement for them and further integration of the Greek Diaspora into American society.
The Revival of Ethnicity 1960–1980
The beginning of the 1960s saw the so-called “revival of ethnicity,” which entailed the widespread dissemination and acknowledgement of the cultural roots and traditions of each ethnic community, including the Greek-Americans. At the same time, the climate of radicalism and reflection in America at that time helped the new generation of Greeks abroad, and in particular women, break free of traditional, patriarchal family structures within the Greek-American family.
The turn towards Hellenism became all the stronger with the arrival of new immigrants after World War II while the reputation acquired by Greeks in America strengthened the sense of pride in their Greek roots. Among the best-known Greeks from that time were Elia Kazan, the soprano Maria Callas, the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and the doctor George Papanikolaou. Immigration flows increased in the period from 1960 to 1974 leading to the establishment of ‘Greek town’ in the Astoria area of New York.
The two-sided development of the Greek presence in America – assimilation coupled with a retention of Greek identity – found its perfect form of expression in the demonstrations over the Cyprus question after 1974. All the Diaspora organizations participated, including the Church led by Archbishop Iakovos, who had made the Archdiocese even more powerful after assuming the throne in 1959, never hesitating to express progressive views, such as his public support for the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern States.
A key element in the success of these demonstrations and the imposition of sanctions on Turkey by the USA in the period 1975–1978 was the role of the Greek-American members of Congress such as Representative John Brademas and Senator Paul Sarbanes.
The 1980s can be characterized as the start of a return to historical memory, a review of the path taken by Greeks in America. It was during that decade that many publications were released and the archive of photographer Leon Pantoti was rediscovered. This was yet another opportunity for Greek-Americans to honor their unique heritage.